An Alternative Voice: A Young Man’s Story from Wajir, Kenya
By Abdisalan Ahmed, Media Content Advisor, EAI Kenya
Abdi Kithiye was a deeply troubled young man last year. Communities in his rural village of Tarbaj were living in constant fear of attacks by violent extremist groups roaming the vast areas of Wajir County, bordering Somalia, in northeastern Kenya.
Kithiye didn’t know what to do and where to begin to confront the challenges facing his community, but he felt compelled to take some action.
We met Kithiye a year ago in Wajir when he was speaking to a group of young people after a football match on the dangers of violent extremism.
“Teachers were running away, forcing schools to close nearly every day. We were hearing reports that extremist groups had attacked a village or threatened communities living near the border with Somalia,” he said. “Deep down, I knew the threat was increasing and our future was at stake. I wanted to do something but didn’t know where to begin.”
At the same time, EAI was rolling out a new project aimed at increasing the resilience of Somali-speaking communities to the influence of violent extremist groups, with an emphasis on strengthening local capacity to counter al-Shabaab’s recruitment efforts and shifting attitudes related to ideologically-motivated violence.
The project, which is being implemented in Wajir, Garissa, and Nairobi counties—areas heavily impacted by constant attacks from violent extremism—had a specific component to empower people like Kithiye.
I saw a Facebook ad asking young people to apply for a training program to empower them to use online and offline platforms to offer alternative messaging to the youth who were constantly facing the allure from the extremism groups. I jumped at the opportunity!
Kithiya was referring to EAI’s Tech Camps, which were to be held in the three project locations and, as it turned out, Kithiye was among 28 applicants who were selected to undergo the intensive one-week training program in Wajir.
EAI’s Tech Camps are designed to strengthen the capacity, reach, and visibility of influencers to create powerful, credible, culturally relevant, and scalable alternative narratives and pathways that strengthen pro-social behavior, community resilience, inter-group dialogue, and civic empowerment in target communities.
The Tech Camps, also held in Nairobi and Garissa counties, created a pool of dedicated, trained leaders to reach out to their fellow youth and chart a future free from violence.
“I had the social media platforms to speak about the dangers posed by these groups, but the risks were enormous. I could be targeted by their sympathizers, who were everywhere, even in my village,” he says matter-of-factly.
During the week-long training, Kithiye and his fellow Tech Campers underwent lessons on empowerment; narratives used by violent extremist organizations and counter/alternative narratives; how to create impactful online campaigns; and ultimately become peace influencers.
He enthusiastically took on the training opportunity and eventually graduated as one of the Peace Promotion Fellows, tasked with coming up with his own unique campaign to help his community resist and overcome the growing challenges of violent extremism.
While some of the other fellows chose to take up campaigns on issues such as gender-based violence and girl’s education, Kithiya has made it his passion to counter narratives propagated by violent extremist groups.
“I got more empowered and felt there was something I could do to help my community through my voice, and I started providing alternative narratives to people through my social media pages. In a way I was telling people what life would be without the constant fear from violent groups,” he says.
As Kithiye and the other Peace Promotion Fellows move forward with their projects and campaigns, they begin to sense that their hard work is having a positive impact.
“It means kids will go to school, business will boom as people won’t fear travelling from place to place, and there will be greater coexistence between communities,” he adds.
The future belongs to the young people and we want to empower them so that they can ably chart their path. — EAI East Africa Director Abdirashid Hussein
In addition to the work of the Peace Promotion Fellows and other influencers, EAI has initiated parallel media campaigns through local radios to reach more people with key messages on violent extremism and the need to counter the destructive path of violent organizations.
“We have mainstreamed the fight against violent extremism and provided our youth with different platforms they can interact with, including a dedicated online hub where they can exchange ideas and network,” concludes Hussein.
Through funding from the U.S. State Department’s Global Engagement Center (GEC), EAI is implementing the Somali Voices Project, aimed at building resilience and countering violent groups’ narratives and messages in Kenya and other neighboring countries.